USGA opts for coastal locations - heartland hostings on hold
By M. James Ward
The selection of future US Open sites provides a fascinating behind the scenes understanding of how the United States Golf Association (USGA) seeks to position its most important event. Recommendations are made to the full Executive Committee by senior staff who then ultimately make the final call on which sites are eventually selected.
Interestingly, it was a staff recommendation -- from former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan -- that got the ball rolling when Shinnecock Hills was considered for re-entry in 1986 as a US Open venue. The issue was whether a seasonal club could host the event with the USGA playing the role in getting all the details in motion -- especially on the volunteer side -- something other active membership bases had been keen to do for all the years prior.
In recent years the USGA has opted to include a combination of different sites. In 2013, the Open returned to Merion Golf Club, just outside of Philadelphia, for the first time since 1981. The charming club on the Main Line had to undergo significant modifications given the limited acreage on-site. For example, total ticket sales were capped at 18,000 daily because of the limited space. In addition, the practice area was held on the adjoining West Course -- which required all players to be shuttled back to the East Course. The net result? The desire to include Merion provided clear logistical hurdles that may keep the club on the sidelines for quite some time if ever hosting the event again.
Adding to the mixture of host sites has been the introduction of new sites. This includes the likes of Bethpage's Black Course in 2002 and 2009, as well as Torrey Pines South in 2008. Courses that have opened in recent years were also included -- Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017. As of now, only Torrey is scheduled for a return in 2021.
Two of the major championships have a completely different set of circumstances. The Masters is always played at Augusta National Golf Club and therefore is always played at the same course. The Open Championship does rotate to different venues but those locations must be a links course and the circumstances for hosting leave a very limited number of options with anywhere from 8-10 courses being in the mix.
The PGA Championship is the direct competition with the USGA. For much of the PGA's history the selection of sites was a hodgepodge of second tier layouts with only a few of note being selected. That changed dramatically under the leadership of Jim Awtrey when he became a part of the leadership team in 1986. It was Awtrey who went full bore in raising the profile of the 4th major and the primary emphasis was on getting quality clubs being pursued rigorously. Television exposure expanded from 6.5 hours in 1986 to 64.5 hours in 2005 while TV rights fees grew 600-percent during that same period. Total revenue also saw great gains moving from $12.5 million to $200 million with 381 percent increase in total sponsorship dollars and 286 percent increase in total licensing dollars. In sum -- the USGA was no longer in the catbird seat regarding course selections and now faced a revved up competitor looking for equal consideration.
That tug-of-war continues to this day. In years past, it was possible for a club to hold both events near enough on the calendar. Oakmont held the US Open in 1973 and 1983 --- sandwiched in-between in 1978 was the PGA Championship. No PGA Championship has returned to the famed Pittsburgh layout since then. The same holds true for Oakland Hills (South). The Detroit-area club hosted the US Open in 1985. In 2004 and 2008 the club hosted the Ryder Cup and PGA Championship respectively -- as well as two US Amateurs in 2002 and 2016. To date, no 7th US Open is scheduled.
The PGA of America has been quite active in securing host sites that formerly were tied very closely to the USGA. The most prominent being Oak Hill, Baltusrol and Hazeltine National respectively. Oak Hill, the Rochester, NY club, last hosted a US Open in 1989. In the years to follow -- the famed East Course staged the 1995 Ryder Cup and the 2003 and 2013 PGA Championships. In 2023, the club will again host the PGA. A US Amateur was played there in 1998 but no US Open is planned or likely to happen for the foreseeable future.
The same has happened with Baltusrol. The New Jersey-based club eschewed any professional event by being firmly in the USGA camp. After the 1993 US Open the club was unable to secure support for a 8th US Open following a 13-year cycle in hosting the USGA's main event in 1954, 1967, 1980 and 1993. The PGA Championship was played there in 2005 and during the PGA Championship's centennial in 2016. Whether the club is able to secure another US Open is entirely problematic.
Hazeltine in the Minneapolis area has hosted numerous USGA events -- the most noted being the 1970 and 1991 US Opens. But, despite the desire of the club to get a 3rd US Open the USGA has opted for other locations. Given that reality, Hazeltine hosted the PGA Championship in 2002 and 2009 as well as the Ryder Cup in 2016. Another Ryder Cup is scheduled for 2028.
The recent focus for the USGA has been in restoring the position of a number of classic designed layouts to the forefront. In 2016 Oakmont hosted the US Open and will do so again in 2025. After the debacle in not watering greens during the 2004 championship it appeared Shinnecock Hills might not return to the grand stage. Time has a tendency to heal wounds and the Long Island club is front and center this week with its 5th Open and will do so again for a 6th time in 2026.
From this year through the 2027 event at Pebble Beach the US Open will be staged primarily in either east or west coast time zones. The west coast locations provide the USGA with prime time viewing of the event as the final tee times can be scheduled for 3-4 pm local pacific time allowing for prime time viewing in the eastern USA. The 2019 event at Pebble Beach marks the 100th anniversary of the club and the Open returns to California in two-year intervals with Torrey the site in 2021 and a new opportunity with Los Angeles CC in 2023. Covering the remaining slots are several eastern locations with Winged Foot in 2020, The Country Club in 2022 and Pinehurst in 2024.
The central and mountain time zones in America will not be able to host a US Open until at least 2028 at the earliest. But, that has not meant that clubs in those two areas have stood still. Inverness, located in Toledo, OH, and a four-time venue for the US Open, went through an extensive restoration project that jettisoned the ill-suited contributions made by George and Tom Fazio when the club was about to host the 1979 US Open. Those changes were never really accepted and the club showed total resolve in admitting the obvious and in bringing on board a relatively unknown architect named Andrew Green based out of Baltimore, MD. The Donald Ross layout has returned with much needed vigor and the overall "look" of Inverness is clearly aligned to its original premise. The layout can stretch to over 7,500 yards and it will be interesting to see if the USGA takes note. After hosting the 1979 Open, Inverness also was courted by the PGA and eventually hosted two events -- in 1986 and 1993 -- where Aussie Greg Norman lost both times in epic finishes by Bob Tway and Paul Azinger respectively.
Courses such as Cherry Hills in the Denver area and Southern Hills in the Tulsa area have hosted previous US Opens but are unlikely to get nods for future events. In the case of Southern Hills the club opted to work with the PGA and will host two of its events -- including the PGA Championship -- both prior to 2030. Interestingly, when Herb Kohler opened his mega golf facility just north of Sheboygan, Wisconsin -- initially with Blackwolf Run and then Whistling Straits -- he was intent in having a future US Open come to Whistling Straits. That opportunity never came but it did not prevent Kohler from working with the PGA of America and eventually hosting three PGA Championships as well as being the site for the 2020 Ryder Cup Matches. In Kohler's mind -- that's a trade he will take gladly. With the exception of Bethpage in 2024 the Ryder Cup has been the domain of America's heartland since 2004 and will be in that part of America through 2028.
One major factor that will certainly change the landscape is the PGA Championship being contested in May starting in 2019. The switch happened in concert with the PGA TOUR seeking to abbreviate its congested FedEx Cup Playoffs so no overlap with the start of the National Football League's season would occur. This meant The Players Championship, formerly played in May returning to its original placement in March.
The new time frame means the PGA of America will be looking for possible host sites that may have been at a disadvantage when the traditional August time frame was used. Locations such as Southern Hills would be a much better fit in May than in the cauldron of oppressive heat with an August placement. It is very possible that large States which have had no real role in major championship golf such as Texas will become viable candidates.With the PGA making a clear beachfront in America's heartland -- the USGA has made a clear movement in relying on locations in the eastern and pacific time zones. Classic design architecture has clearly returned to the forefront and the core four facilities -- Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst #2 -- are firmly entrenched as the lead layouts for the folks from Far Hills, NJ. The PGA of America has quickly escalated the stakes for what courses will be in play. The ensuing battleground skirmishes will make for an interesting roadmap on which courses opt to go in one direction or the other. The street of major championship golf is clearly a "one way" oriented street - either with the USGA or PGA of America. Two-way traffic is hardly likely.